Maharashtra bans village councils from imposing social boycotts

Maharashtra bans village councils from imposing social boycotts
In this file photo, Indian police stand guard in Mumbai. (AFP)
Updated 13 May 2016

Maharashtra bans village councils from imposing social boycotts

Maharashtra bans village councils from imposing social boycotts

MUMBAI: India’s Maharashtra state has become the first in the country to ban village councils from imposing “social boycotts” that ostracize individuals or families for defying tradition.
Women and lower caste Dalits often bear the brunt of such judgments, passed as punishment for perceived misdeeds such as marrying between castes or dressing immodestly. The western Indian state last month passed the law against a decades-old practice of village panchayats, or councils, ordering social boycotts. “The Act was required against the backdrop of atrocities inflicted on people in the name of tradition, caste and community,” said Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis.
“It is necessary to prohibit social boycotts as a matter of social reform in the interest of public welfare,” he said.
Under village council orders, individuals and families have been banished from the community, and denied access to temples, wells, markets and celebrations.
In some cases, panchayats have even branded women as witches, and ordered gang rapes or killings as punishment.
Maharashtra’s new law declares social boycotts a crime punishable by up to seven years in prison, a fine of 500,000 ($7,500), or both.
Human rights campaigners called for other Indian states to follow Maharashtra’s example.
“The law will help check caste crimes to some extent. It empowers lower-caste people and it empowers human rights organizations, as it gives us a tool with which to fight against village panchayats,” said Irfan Engineer, director of the Center for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai.
“We need a similar law in the rest of the country, particularly in states where (unelected) khap panchayats are strong,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Khap panchayats are unelected village councils comprising men of a particular clan or caste. While their power has diminished since 1992, when elected village councils were made mandatory, they remain powerful in socially conservative states including Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and parts of Uttar Pradesh.
India’s top court in 2011 described khap panchayats as “kangaroo courts” that are entirely illegal.